Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Can't Buy a Thrill

Steely Dan started their tenure with musicians such as guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter in a far more rock-oriented debut, Can’t Buy a Thrill. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen first crossed paths in 1967, when both were students at Bard College in upstate New York. Discovering they had common musical and literary interests, in addition to a shared dark sense of humor, they became fast friends. Forming a songwriting partnership, they would hone their craft over the next 5 years, first by landing a small publishing deal in New York, which then led to work as session and touring musicians with the pop group Jay And The Americans. By 1971, upon the recommendation of ABC/Dunhill producer Gary Katz, they signed on as staff songwriters and relocated to Los Angeles. During these early years, Becker and Fagen wrote a considerable amount of original material that nobody seemed keen on recording, so they took the next logical step and formed a band to record it themselves.

In addition to Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter on guitars, they added drummer Jim Hodder and lead singer David Palmer. Combining a penchant for jazz, blues and R&B with the more commercial leanings of rock 'n' roll and Brill Building-era pop, Becker and Fagen sculpted their songs from a wide-ranging musical palette. Their ability to combine beautiful melodies with lyrics of an often sarcastic and cynical bent would prove a winning formula over the course of their career. 

Taking their name from the steam-powered dildo in William Burroughs' novel Naked Lunch, Steely Dan set about recording their debut album, "Can't Buy A Thrill," which would spawn two unlikely hits with "Do It Again" and "Reelin'' In The Years. "Do It Again" was a breakthrough top 10 hit for the Dan, and with its lush percussion, haunting electric piano groove, ultra-catchy chorus, and the blistering electric sitar solo from Denny Dias (notice how the guy never bent a string), it's among the best singles ever. "Only A Fool Would Say That" is top-notch, and the hook-filled "Kings" is basically intriguing but for a showoff-y Elliot Randall guitar solo, which doesn't fit. The album's other big hit, "Reelin' In the Years" while a bit threadbare by now is still a quality song that's undeniably crafted and catchy with great chorus harmonies. "Turn That Heartbeat Over Again" is frustratingly fragmented, and despite all its ideas, it feels rather aimless and not fully realized. Although Fagen handles most of the lead vocals on here, David Palmer was with the group at this early stage as an additional lead vocalist, partly because of Fagen's stage fright. "Dirty Work" and the steel guitar-laden "Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)” are fine tunes that don't necessarily sound Dan-ish. "Midnight Cruiser", with drummer Jim Hodder on lead vocals, starts off really nice, and it's respectably tuneful, but the chorus feels lazily underwritten & tossed off. "Fire In the Hole" feels half-baked like so much of the rest, as if the LP wasn’t fully actualized, although this critique is jaded by every other LP that came after it. "Change of the Guard" is sort of a feel-good tune and a sugar-coated attempt at being upbeat. In the end, Can't Buy A Thrill (excuse the pun) is a highly respectable album, but not on the same level as masterpieces such as Katy Lied and Aja (what, indeed, is on a level with Aja?).

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